With a strong economy that padded city coffers and a rising progressive movement that aided his agenda, Mayor Jim Kenney in his first term scored a series of high-profile victories, such as enacting the soda tax and returning Philadelphia schools to local control.
But Kenney’s fortune ran out during the first seven months of his second term. The coronavirus pandemic has upended political agendas while blowing a $749 million hole in the city budget. And the administration’s widely criticized handling of the protests over police brutality has jeopardized his support among progressives.
Through it all, Kenney has maintained his hands-off leadership style, allowing allies to take the spotlight mayors usually dominate and rarely overruling his subordinates. While Kenney’s approach to the job hasn’t changed, the political environment has, and many are now calling for a more assertive voice to lead the city through a period of unprecedented crises.
Kenney’s management style is “not an inappropriate problem-solving dynamic,” said George Burrell, a former City Council member who served in John F. Street’s mayoral administration. “What I want now from the mayor is: What’s the vision, and what are they doing? How do all of these moving parts fit together to change our city to address the issues that everybody says uniquely impacts the Black community?”
Last week’s surprise announcement that Managing Director Brian Abernathy will resign in September is emblematic of the way perceptions of Kenney’s leadership have changed as the city has been rocked by 2020′s catastrophes. A headstrong politico-turned-bureaucrat who oversees the operations of city agencies and reports to Kenney, Abernathy had become a leading face of the city’s largely praised response to the pandemic, as well as a target of criticism for protesters disgusted with the heavy-handed crackdown on the demonstrations.
In a different administration, Abernathy may have been virtually unknown to the public during both emergencies. But the attention he has received in recent weeks led several members of Kenney’s tight inner circle to encourage the mayor to seek a change. Two weeks after saying he had no plans to leave city government, Abernathy on Tuesday announced he would resign Sept. 4, a decision he said was reached mutually with Kenney.
Kenney said he prefers a “collaborative” approach to decision-making.
“I’m not a police command operations person. I’m not a sanitation route person. I’m not a health commissioner. I don’t have those expertise. When we have decisions to make … I sit and collaborate, listen to the experts,” Kenney said in a recent interview. “I like this style. I don’t think that dictating from the top down is always effective.”
Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble said the protests “have given Mayor Kenney new clarity and a greater sense of urgency to transform Philadelphia into the equitable, thriving city that all Philadelphians deserve.” She said the mayor “has been planning to speak directly to Philadelphians about his vision for moving Philly forward” soon.
The mayor’s hand-off approach, however, can backfire when his subordinates make mistakes. That dynamic appears to have factored into two high-profile decisions over the police response to the Floyd protests for which the city has been heavily criticized: a lack of preparation for the initial demonstrations, and the later use of tear gas on protesters.
On the first day, there were not enough police officers in Center City to simultaneously prevent looters from ransacking stores on Chestnut and Walnut Streets and guard City Hall and the Municipal Services Building, which some protesters had tried to break into. The Police Department weighed deploying a larger force that day, The Inquirer previously reported, but ultimately chose a smaller one.
Abernathy said neither he nor Kenney were aware that there were two options the Police Department was weighing prior to the Saturday demonstration. He and Kenney simply asked Outlaw if the police were prepared, he said, because neither are experts in policing.
“I didn’t ask how many officers we had, how we deployed [them]. And even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to say if it’s the right thing or the wrong thing,” Abernathy said.
In a statement, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw acknowledged police were short-staffed but said the deployment plan was never scaled back “to any significant degree.”
“I relied on the recommendations, and trusted the judgment of those who advised me, who have experience managing protests here in Philadelphia,” Outlaw said.
At the other key decision point during the protests, the authorization of tear gas, Kenney was aware of the options and followed Outlaw’s suggestion.
As demonstrators and looters clashed with police along the 52nd Street corridor in West Philadelphia on the second day of protests, Outlaw proposed that police be allowed to deploy tear gas to disperse crowds, a tactic not used in Philadelphia since former Mayor Frank Rizzo’s administration.
Kenney has since said he regrets not overruling Outlaw.
“I ignored what my instincts told me,” Kenney said at a news conference apologizing for the gassing of protesters on I-676 a day after the 52nd Street incident. “I have never believed tear gas was an effective tool when I’ve seen other cities use it in protests. It always seemed to me to make situations worse. And it has.”
David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive who as chief of staff to former Mayor Ed Rendell, helped guide the city through its financial crisis in the early 1990s, praised Kenney’s performance in recent months. He said each mayor must use the approach that matches his personality.
“The management style and structure of decision-making has to be flexibly determined by the culture of the organization, by the personality of the mayor,” Cohen said. Kenney’s, he said, “is a heavily delegated management style, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that style, in times of crisis or in good times.”
“The structure is not the problem, if there is a problem,” Cohen said. “The quality of people — and it’s deeper than just the first level of people — is the critical test.”
For the first three years of Kenney’s administration, Chief of Staff Jane Slusser and Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis, both ardent progressives, steered the mayor toward a more assertively liberal agenda.
Abernathy, however, is one of the most politically moderate voices in the top rungs of the administration and is especially friendly with the Police Department, a characteristic that the civil unrest over George Floyd’s death has made politically unpalatable. And Jim Engler, Kenney’s longtime aide who became chief of staff in 2018, is seen as more task-oriented and less ideological than Slusser.
Even before the economic effects of the pandemic sapped the city of resources, Kenney’s second-term agenda, highlighted by a new community college scholarship program and a promise to bring street sweeping to every neighborhood, was less ambitious than that of his first four years.
City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said a consequence of Kenney’s approach is that high-ranking administration officials have significant power to shape the agenda in their policy areas, creating a government that can lack cohesion and vision.
“We have what has become a somewhat fragmented city administration built around portfolios around people and personalities, and we’ve got to go back to being a mission-driven government,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, one of Kenney’s most outspoken critics on Council. “We need a comprehensive plan that recognizes that, in order to get equity, you have to be committed to filling the structural, historical, socioeconomic gaps.”
Quiñones-Sánchez, who is rumored to be eyeing a mayoral run in 2023, also said Kenney needs to be more visible as the city moves forward. A willingness to share the spotlight can be a useful trait for leaders, for instance when building support for an ambitious initiative. But that’s not what Philadelphians need now, she said.